More than just caravans and Heineken

Since the semi-final in the 1988 European Championships at the latest, many Germans have a somewhat uninterested or even sceptical attitude towards their Dutch neighbours. And even though the billowing passions of the football fans have begun to subside, it would perhaps be going too far to claim that “love thy neighbour” is now the ubiquitous watchword. The clichés are as numerous as they’re multifaceted, ranging from clogs, caravan and cheese all the way through to tulips and clogged (!) motorways.

But the Netherlands are a whole lot more than that, as I’ve been firmly convinced ever since my internship in Amsterdam. There are the innumerable small pubs and cafés, for instance, in which you can enjoy a beer or three with some genuine Dutch gezelligheid. Not that the beers involved are all that gigantic, mind you! Although the various beer sizes and their designations constitute an arcane science in themselves, what’s normally ordered is a biertje. And this biertje, measuring just 25 – 30 cl (depending on the region involved), has more than deserved the diminutive suffix. However, the pleasant side-effect is that one after-work beer during a borrel (a convivial get-together) with your colleagues can be safely relied upon to become four or five rounds, and that on Saturday mornings, too, when you’re strolling through the city, you can stop off briefly for a beer without any problems.

And what could be nicer than drinking a nice cold beer in the sunshine at one of the innumerable canals? Right: a beer in the sun, next to the water – with a tasty snack. And even though Dutch cuisine is (rightly) far from renowned, when it comes to making snacks, referred to there as borrelhapjes, these are outstandingly good! The absolute classics among these snacks are Gouda cubes and bitterballs: small battered round delicacies filled with a kind of ragout (and only the truly courageous will venture to ask what’s really inside them), best enjoyed with some hot and spicy mustard. As optional extras, a popular choice is a few slices of sausage or cheese in batter (in the form of kaassoufflés or kaasstengels).

But important though the accompaniments are, the beer itself must never, of course, be neglected. With Belgium and Germany as neighbours, brewing beer in the Netherlands itself is hardly a matter of supreme urgency. And the population of just under 17 million people does not constitute an overwhelmingly large domestic market. Nevertheless, over the centuries of traditional brewing, not only has the Dutch mega-conglomerate Heineken survived and prospered, but numerous smaller breweries as well. And while Heineken mostly brews down-to-earth beers for the global masses, there are also plenty of breweries that have signed up to the craft beer movement. In recent decades, for example, what was once the tiny Brouwerij `t IJ has evolved into a brewery with eight standard beers, three seasonal beers, and some limited-edition beers as well. The range of standard beers includes the regional brewery’s IPA, which meanwhile has a devoted following at the pubs in and around Amsterdam, and is a popular alternative to Heineken or Amstel. Brewing seasonally different beers is also common practice at other breweries: Texels, for example, brews specialty beers for the springtime and for the dark and stormy winter season. What’s more, there are no fewer than two annual competitions for the title of “Best Bock Beer”. The list of Dutch breweries is as long as the row of bicycles parked at Amsterdam’s main station – enumerating them all here would be impossible. The abundant regional beers, though, are definitely worth an outing across the border – as are the numerous truly beautiful cities.

Another thing to like: the “Proost!” beyond the border is not all that different from our own “Prost!”. That’s what I call a promising start to cross-frontier rapprochement.

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